Computer Science

Computer Science Professor Lydia Kavraki. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

WHEN ALLISON HEATH ’04 WAS A SOPHOMORE at Rice, she received an email from Computer Science Professor Lydia Kavraki asking if she was interested in an undergraduate research opportunity for the summer. That summer sowed the seeds of her Ph.D. and started a journey of mentorship under Kavraki. One of Rice’s most prolific researchers in computational robotics and biomedicine, Kavraki has been the base from which many students — especially women — have launched successful careers.

In her home country of Greece, Kavraki was one of the few women studying in a prestigious computer science department at the University of Crete — and one of its first graduates. At the time, she didn’t give much thought to why there were so few female computer science students. “We took it for granted and moved along,” she said. It was only later that she realized that the lack of women in computing and technology was not an accident — in fact, she maintains, it’s a result of entrenched biases that preclude women from making certain career choices.

Her presence at Rice is a reassuring one to female students. “When you know that your adviser is a superstar in her field who gets awards every year, you feel like it’s normal for women to excel,” said Sarah Kim, a fourth-year Ph.D. student and one of Kavraki’s advisees.

At the national level, only 18 percent of computer science majors are women. But Rice is bucking the trend: in 2014, 30 percent of Rice’s computer science graduates were female.

For the last 10 years, Kavraki has been the sponsor of CSters (pronounced sisters), a group of Rice women in computing founded by undergraduate students in 2002. The group stays active, organizing trips to conferences, inviting speakers to Rice and visiting potential employers.

“It’s very important to have good mentors,” Kavraki said. “Moshe Vardi (professor of computational engineering) helped me a lot when I started working at Rice.”

Kavraki’s influence is not lost on her former students either. Heath, now the director of data technology and innovation at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, remembers a particular moment that highlighted Kavraki’s dedication to her students. “I had a paper accepted to one of the top computational biology conferences, but I was very nervous about giving a talk. Lydia took several hours of her evening to go over it with me multiple times. The next day, I gave a solid talk. Looking back to that moment, I realize just how far I have come thanks to Lydia’s mentorship.”

On April 26, Kavraki received the Association for Computing Machinery’s Athena Lecturer Award, honoring women researchers who make fundamental contributions to computer science.

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